Unpaid bills mean no water in Wilcox

Published 9:24 pm Friday, August 1, 2008

MONTGOMERY – Seventy homes in Wilcox County were left without water this week in more than 90-degree heat as officials in the poor, rural county began a crackdown on delinquent bills, some unpaid for as long as five years.

Water may be cut off to many more as a private company continues the process of collecting from 321 delinquent customers.

Some complained that their water was cut off without notice and that they had to tote water in jugs from relatives’ homes to care for their children and the elderly.

But county commissioners said they were forced to take action after years of problems that included two employees being charged with mishandling funds and bills going for years without being paid. Commissioner Mark Curl said the county’s water and sewer system had a deficit of almost $1 million.

“It’s been a long process. We’ve published their names in the newspaper. It’s not like someone knocked them over the head this week and turned off their water,” Curl said. He said some unpaid bills were as high as several thousand dollars.

With about 13,000 residents, census estimates shows Wilcox has the second highest poverty rate in the state and is one of the 100 poorest counties in the country.

The county commission hired a Montgomery company, Clearwater Solutions, to take over the water system as of July 1. Clearwater’s manager in Wilcox County, Paul Jackson, said the first job was to begin the process of collecting from delinquent customers.

He said customers were warned on their bills and that notices were placed in a local newspaper and on local radio.

He said workers would continue to cut off water meters until all of the delinquent accounts are paid. He said water was not being cut off on Fridays so that customers would have time to get their service restored before the weekend.

“All we want people to do is pay for the water they’ve gotten,” Jackson said.

But Fayrene Bonner, who is six months pregnant and lives in the rural Snow Hill community with her three children, said she did not see or hear any warnings.

“They didn’t give us a warning. They just turned it off,” Bonner said. She said it’s going to cost her about $300 to get her water turned back on.

“It’s kind of hurt without water, but we’re dealing with it,” Bonner said.

Judy Smith said she returned home Monday after working at a community center in Furman to discover that her water had been disconnected.

“I got a daughter that lives not too far from me and we hauled water from there,” said Smith, who said she owes about $400 on her water bill.

County officials warned that the water system could end up in bankruptcy if something isn’t done about the unpaid bills.

“If they haven’t paid their bill, it’s going to be cut off. They had plenty of notice,” said Commissioner Elijah Shaw.

Commissioner John Matthews said the county system, with about 2,000 customers, charges $12.75 for the first 2,000 gallons of water, which he said is one of the lowest rates in the state.

He said the county had no choice but to crack down on the delinquent bills.

“It’s something we must face. The water department is in the red,” Matthews said.

But at a Catholic mission in Pine Apple, outreach worker Doris Smith said she has heard from numerous people, some who live in small trailers without air conditioning, who are trying to come up with the money to get water service restored.

“It’s a hardship for people. I wonder why they would turn the water off just before school starts back and people are trying to buy school supplies?” Smith said.